Venice 2023 review: Io capitano (Matteo Garrone)

“All of this renders Io capitano into an enjoyable enough watch that is undeniably well-made, but is too predictable and lacks an emotional impact to really pack a punch.”

While Polish director Agnieszka Holland showed her audience (exhaustingly, it must be said) the extensive misery migrants have to endure on the borders of Europe trying to get into what they hope to be the promised land, Italian director Matteo Garrone is more interested in the long and arduous journeys people make to even reach that final hurdle. It is not surprising that these specific directors tackle the issue of migrants trying to get into Europe, seeing as they are from countries that are gateways to the EU. But Garrone, in his latest effort Io capitano (I Am the Captain) only shows his country almost as a fata morgana, a vague outline of land on the horizon. It’s a mysterious sight for those that have made it to the final part of the journey, a ride across the Mediterranean on a rickety and overloaded barge; they know very little of what that fleck of land on the horizon is going to bring, but just the sight of it fills them with utter joy.

But getting to the point of being able to feel that joy involves a lot of hardship. So it is for Seydou (Seydou Sarr) and his cousin Moussa (Moustapha Fall). Two teenagers in Dakar, Senegal, with big dreams about what they would be able to achieve in Europe with their love for making music. Unrealistic dreams, everybody tells them, including Seydou’s mother. But the two boys have put the money they have earned working construction jobs aside to ensure they can make their odyssey. Against the will of his mother Seydou sets out with Moussa, first to Mali and from there through the desert to Libya. Heat and exhaustion are the main dangers in the early stages of their ‘adventure’, which is mostly done on foot. After the endless sand dunes come the Libyan rebels with their guns and their cruel torture methods. Seydou gets separated from Moussa and is sold as a slave worker to a rich Libyan family, who have him and an older co-worker build a wall around their mansion. As a reward for their good work the men are allowed to travel onwards to Tripoli, the coastal city from where the last leap is to be taken. But Seydou doesn’t want to take this leap alone, so he searches the city high and low for his cousin. The expected reunion happens, but the two boys do not have enough money for the final ride across the water. Then the Libyan trafficker has a creative suggestion…

Garrone tells Io capitano as an adventure story with ups and downs, Seydou’s odyssey in episodes; moments of great sadness and pain alternate with bouts of elation and joy. Seydou’s positivity helps him get through the worst of it all. The director frequently takes time to show the beauty of the landscape Seydou and other migrants traverse, as if shooting a travelogue, but also to show the insignificance of man in nature’s vastness. Dreams and magical realism further Io capitano‘s odyssey impression. It is a totally different approach from Holland’s, whose gritty onslaught of cruelty has no signs of brightness. Her version of the migrant story is probably closer to the truth, but Garrone’s version is a more interesting and entertaining tale to watch, with the elements of a coming-of-age story giving the audience a vested interest in its protagonist. Seydou not only takes the physically gruelling journey from Dakar to the shores of Italy, but also a spiritual journey of growth as a person. As, proudly and full of emotion, he shouts the film’s title at a rescue helicopter of the Italian coast guard which has spotted Seydou’s ship, its rotors sounding ominously like machine-gun fire, Seydou has completed his journey from a young and naïve boy to a responsible young man who astonishes himself with his maturity and can-do attitude. His dreams have repeatedly turned into nightmares along the way, but the film ends on a hopeful note and leaves the audience with the positive feeling that this boy will be okay.

The danger in Garrone’s approach is twofold: first there is the risk of a migrant’s harrowing journey becoming too romanticized, and Io capitano definitely suffers in this regard. Holland’s continuous onslaught of horror is one thing, but Garrone’s somewhat glossy treatment is the pendulum swinging a bit too much to the other side. An uplifting story of human survival against all odds, with a cheerful soundtrack of African music (which in itself is great), the film threatens to emphasize the adventure angle too heavily. The second danger is the film becoming episodic, a pitfall Garrone also steps into. Given that Seydou and Moussa are the only characters that share multiple parts of their journey, this relegates supporting characters mostly to pawns in Seydou’s character development and less to beings of flesh and blood. This diminishes the impact for instance of a woman dying of exhaustion on their trek through the Sahara, or the other slave worker Seydou does the construction work with. Garrone thus creates a film that doesn’t really stick its message or fully capture the horror of Seydou’s journey. To be honest, while the trip is physically demanding, the only time he is really in danger is when he is captured by the Libyan rebels, who torture him because he doesn’t want to give up his mother’s phone number so they can demand that she send money. All of this renders Io capitano into an enjoyable enough watch that is undeniably well-made, but is too predictable and lacks an emotional impact to really pack a punch.